Some thoughts on Coventry, Podolski and Draxler

Arsenal 4 – 0 Coventry

Match report | Highlights

This was our biggest win of the season…
…although the scoreline was arguably somewhat flattering. After romping in to a two-goal lead, Arsenal took their foot off the gas and instead applied the dreaded handbrake. On a side note, it’s vaguely amusing that a handbreak is something designed for security, but in Arsenal terminology has transmogrified in to something perilous.

Anyhow. Had Coventry’s Leon Clarke been in better form, the underdogs may even have grabbed a couple of goals. As it was, they failed to take their opportunities, and tired late on.

That’s what a midfield without Arteta & Flamini looks like…
Arsene fielded a very attack-minded central midfield of Jack Wilshere alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Although both players impressed in possession, without the ball they struggled. In the second half, Coventry regularly isolated and outmanoeuvred our full-backs. The work that Arteta and particularly Flamini do in wide areas is often overlooked and utterly vital.

It’s hard to argue with Podolski’s numbers…
He now has more goals than starts in 2013/14. He’s comfortably the best finisher in the Arsenal squad. In the light of his brace, it’ll be fascinating to see whether or not he gets the nod to start against Southampton on Tuesday. He couldn’t really have done much more to demonstrate his ability against Coventry. If he doesn’t start, it suggests that nothing Podolski can produce on the pitch will alleviate Wenger’s patent unwillingness to field him from the start.

We were more German than ever….
When Gedion Zelalem came on for his first-team debut, Arsenal had five Germans on the pitch. On the same night, Bayern Munich played in the Bundesliga. They ended their game with just four.

Further reading: Globe-trotting Gedion Zelalem looks at home at Arsenal – ESPN

However, I don’t think Draxler is coming…
Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t see this deal happening in the January window. A lot of amateur body language experts have come out of the woodwork to analyse Arsene’s various smirks and batting eyelashes, but I don’t think there’s anything in there to suggest we’re on the verge of a swoop for the prodigiously-talented Draxler.

I think the player would very much like to come. A lot of the noise this week seems to have emanated from his camp. However, the more certain Arsenal are of the player’s commitment the less likely they are to play his steep release clause. Arsenal will do the deal when they can get it cheapest.

There’s another reason for my doubts. Earlier in January, the club were actively considering a bid for a wide player. That search was accelerated when Theo Walcott was ruled out for the rest of the season. However, since then, agents who had previously being tasked with identifying potential recruits are now being fed the same “we have 17 wingers” line that Wenger trotted out in his post-Coventry press conference. That is the new company line – inspired, one might imagine, by the swift development of Serge Gnabry.

“Ah”, you say, “but what if he sees Draxler as a striker?” Wenger may well have a long-term plan to develop Draxler in to a striker, but is the middle of a title challenge really the best time to embark upon that sort of experiment? As much as I’d like us to sign the player, I suspect not.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the reason Wenger has privately called off the hunt for a wide attacker is that he’s already found the one he wants: Draxler. However, looking in to his eyes on Friday night, I didn’t sense the same anticipatory glee I saw prior to the Ozil signing.

I think Arsene would still like to sign a striker, ideally on loan. Whether or not that will be possible in what’s left of the window remains to be seen. It looks unlikely.

I’d like to be wrong. I’d love Wenger to go out and make a signing in this window. I have a horrible, nagging suspicion that if we don’t, we may be left wondering “what if” come May. We’re in a phenomenal position, and I can’t fathom why we’d choose to leave anything to chance.

The FA Cup Draw…
I’ve come to accept that any home draw is essentially a good draw. We’ve been handed three in succession, so can’t really complain. Manchester City facing off against Chelsea is also fantastic for our chances. The FA Cup certainly represents our most direct route to silverware this season. It’s tantalising to imagine that we are just two wins from Wembley, and four wins from a trophy. Admittedly, the draw does leave us with a pretty daunting schedule over the next two months. However, as a United-supporting friend said to me in the light of the draw: “Better to be scared than bored”.

Further reading: Why February Could Be Make or Break for Arsenal’s Season – Bleacher Report

Arsenal 2 – 0 Fulham: Cazorla good, Ozil bad, Arsenal top

 It wasn’t just the team that was the same as against Villa…
…the lackadaisical attitude was pretty familiar too. In the first half, Arsenal were poor. Fulham seemed to replicate Villa’s trick of lulling us in to a false sense of security before proving relatively dangerous – all within the space of 45 minutes.

A second striker would have been incredibly useful…
Fulham were simply too comfortable in their own half. For long periods, Dimitar Berbatov was the only player anywhere near the Arsenal goal. The Cottagers were happy to drop the majority of their men deep and thus ensure they picked up the second balls in and around their own penalty area. Their attacking ambition was limited, but the sheer weight of numbers also meant they could keep the ball in their half with relative ease.

Arsene has long-since abandoned the idea of a strict “4-4-2”, but in the absence of a ‘wide attacker’ like Theo Walcott meant that Olivier Giroud was far too isolated. It was telling that when Lukas Podolski was later introduced to play closer to Giroud, Fulham looked far more stretched.

Some Arsenal fans would love Andros Townsend…
The England winger has taken on more shots per game than any other player in this season’s Premier League.

Young Serge Gnabry had a good game, but there is one exuberant aspect of his game I’d urge him to temper. Gnabry likes a shot. A vocal section of the supporters seem to love it: finally they have someone to respond to their pleading cries of “shooooot!” However, I’d question how effective taking pot-shots from range actually is.

During today’s game, Gnabry had five shots. Only one tested the goalkeeper.

Supporters like seeing a player get a shot away. It feels more satisfying, more rewarding than another sideways pass. It’s quantifiable ‘end product’. However, at times today Gnabry took shots on when one extra pass might have led to a genuine goalscoring opportunity for another player. Patience is a virtue he will that will come in time. (I guess I’ll have to be patient too.)

It’s clear from some of the spectacular strikes Gnabry has produced at youth level that he has the potential to be dangerous from range. However, on today’s evidence he would be wise to rein it in a touch. He’s learning. It’ll come.

Flamini’s importance can’t be underestimated…
As the second half kicked off, he was urging his team mates to drive forward. Flamini, like Per Mertesacker, seems acutely conscious of the importance of consistency in every single game. He is a proper pro.

We’re allowed to criticise Mesut Ozil…
Sometimes it feels as if we’re so eager for our record signing to do well that anything approaching criticism of his performance is deemed a kind of blasphemy. Equally, the tiniest contribution is hailed as a game-changer. I half expect someone to suggest that Santi Cazorla was afforded the room to score his second goal against Fulham due to a particularly well-timed Ozil fart.

Let’s get this straight: I love Ozil as much as the rest of you. I think his signing is one of the most exciting things to happen in my time as a fan. I think he’s generally been an excellent addition, and the effect of his arrival on the club has been dramatic and transformative.

However, he played badly against Fulham. There were frequent incidents of miscontrol and some curiously misplaced passes.

Perversely, it sometimes feels as if the standards we expect of our record signing are lower than the expectations we place on less heralded players. If another player in the team had made the alarming errors that Ozil did against Fulham, it’d be highlighted by many – in far more vicious terms than this.

He has been good. However, he can do so much better. And I’m sure he will. But the point I want to make is that it’s not wrong to demand more of a player with Ozil’s extraordinary gifts.

Podolski celebrated coming on like he’d scored a goal…
When Steve Bould indicated that he was about to come on, Podolski started furiously pumping his fist towards the nearby Arsenal fans. He was plainly desperate to make an impact, and was unlucky not to score with one spectacular strike that was tipped on to the post. Perhaps a little time on the sidelines has provided him with the perfect motivation.

Does anyone know the rules about kicking the ball out?
On more than one occasion, a player went down and both teams and the referee looked genuinely confused about what to do. It’s baffling. The clubs need to be properly briefed so that this issue is cleared up once and for all, and the referees need to be more demonstrative about following the existing guidelines.

Santi Cazorla…
…looked more like the player I remember from last season, which was heartening. With Walcott out, he needs to continue regularly making a tangible impact in terms of goals and assists.

Arsenal haven’t really hammered anyone this season…
It’s odd. For all our good form, we haven’t beaten anyone by more than three-goal margin this season. Sometimes it feels as if a Mourinho-esque hand-brake comes on when we feel the game is won. Alternatively, it could be because we simply don’t have the same surplus of goal-hungry strikers as previous Arsenal sides.

This time last year…
Arsenal were sixth with 34 points. Now, they sit top with 51. It’s some turnaround. Any team that beats us to the title will have to be rather special.

Aston Villa 1 – 2 Arsenal: Sheer Will From Wilshere

Aston Villa 1 – 2 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Before the game…
I was asked by People.co.uk to compare Aston Villa to a cartoon character. I suggested Spongebob Squarepants, as he’s young, full of energy, but ultimately not very good at football.

I was wrong. They didn’t have much energy.

Wilshere’s contribution was Ramsey-esque…
In the Welshman’s absence, Jack has really stepped up. Many will point to the fact he’s getting a run in his preferred position, but I also think he’s relishing the added responsibility.

Whenever he praised Ramsey’s heroics earlier this season, I always felt he was masking a nagging envy. There was a lot of, “he’s a great example” and “I hope I can follow what he’s doing”, but the subtext was clear: Wilshere wanted a bit of the glory. Now, finally, he’s getting it.

Prior to the kickoff of the 2013/14 campaign, Wilshere had just five Arsenal goals to his name. However, the goal he scored against Villa was his fifth of this season. You don’t need to be a mathematician to work out what that means, but I’m going to tell you anyway. In just half a season, Wilshere has doubled his career goals tally for Arsenal. Ramsey’s extraordinary feats have clouded Wilshere’s improving efficiency.

The fact that moments after scoring his goal he won the ball back and created the second tells you everything about his character. Many players would have been content to sit back and soak up the glory for a bit. Not Jack: he was straight back on the front foot. That competitive spirit is invaluable.

Per Mertesacker loves his job…
His job is to defend, and he clearly adores it. For too long Arsenal had defenders who aspired to be footballers. Mertesacker, on the other hand, has embraced his fate.

He’s under no illusions: he couldn’t be a No. 10. With his physical and technical limitations, centre-back is the only position in which he could realistically make a career as a professional footballer. Almost because of that, he is absolutely dedicated to his craft. Unlike the likes of Ozil, he can’t get by simply on talent. He is a student of the game. Scrap that: he’s a professor. A don.

His reaction to conceding the Benteke goal was fabulous. He was furious with Santi Cazorla for ceding possession in such a needless manner. We saw a flash of the rage that Mertesacker turned on Ozil when he failed to applaud the away fans a few weeks back. Behind the meek exterior is the same competitive spirit that drives Wilshere.

The decision not to bring Podolski on will get people talking…

…largely due to his clearly disappointed response.

There’s a few things to say on this. The first is that it’s entirely reasonable and normal for a player to be disappointed at not being used. The second is that Arsene probably made the right choice: when you’re holding on to a lead, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s energy is certainly more useful than Podolski’s powerful shooting.

However, the noise surrounding Podolski’s uncertain future has not been generated by one isolated incident. It’s been clear since the start of 2013 that Arsene Wenger has issues with selecting the German.

The fact that teenager Serge Gnabry was selected to start over Podolski seems far more significant than the fact he didn’t make it off the bench. As a man with more than 100 caps to his name, Podolski wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t a little irked to have fallen behind the upstart Gnabry in the pecking order.

Arsene has thrown down quite the gauntlet to Podolski here. As I wrote in this piece for ESPN, I fear it could end acrimoniously in the summer. However, perhaps it’s the mother of all motivation techniques. If Podolski is handed an opportunity from the start against Fulham, he’ll certainly feel he has a point to prove.

This wasn’t one of those “mark of champions” performances…
It wasn’t professional. It was sloppy. Arsenal should have had this game wrapped up, but instead slacked off in the second half and allowed Villa back in to it. Given how poor Villa were for most of the game, anything other than three points would have been something of a disaster.

However, we got there in the end. We stumbled but we didn’t slip. Arsenal are back on top of the table. Just how I like it.

Arsenal must find a way to replace Theo Walcott’s goals

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It’s rare that a piece of Arsenal news shocks me. We live, lest we forget, in a world where Nicklas Bendtner has claimed to have the potential to be the best footballer in the world, and in which Emmanuel Eboue once dressed as a tiger.

However, when I saw the news that Theo Walcott would miss the remainder of the season and this summer’s World Cup, I was genuinely taken aback.

When Theo Walcott first pulled up against Spurs, I was immediately concerned. His knee bulged in that unnatural way that one associates with cruciate ligament injuries. However, in his post-match press conference Arsene Wenger played down any major fears. The talk in the press room was that Walcott would be out for a few weeks at worst.

Some Arsenal fans were unwilling to countenance even that. It seems hugely ironic now, but I saw The Guardian’s David Hytner being pilloried on Twitter for publishing an article saying Walcott “could miss four weeks”. The trolls accused him of jumping the gun. They said he ought to wait for the scan rather than posting speculative news. How right they were. And yet how wrong.

The truth is far worse than anyone could have feared. The official statement says Walcott will miss “at least” six months. In reality, it could be closer to a year.

I’m actually surprised by how gutted I am for him. He’s not a player I have a particularly strong emotional attachment too. He has probably caused me as much frustration as joy.

However, I have huge admiration for the way his game has evolved over the past 18 months. As my friend Tobi said, his head finally seemed to have caught up with his feet. Walcott has overcome criticism and some fairly serious injuries to become a bona fide star of the Premier League. He had earned the prize of a legitimate title challenge and a World Cup in Brazil.

Ah, the World Cup. It’s not Arsenal’s problem, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for a guy who will miss out on a second World Cup in succession. Theo plainly loves playing for England, and it will crush him to know that, despite being selected for one aged 17, he will have no chance of playing on world football’s greatest stage until he is 29. It pains me to say it, but by then Walcott’s pace and subsequently his star may be fading — especially with the added complication of a cruciate injury.

It’s often said that it’s tragic that the likes of George Best and Ryan Giggs never got to play in the World Cup. I get that. However, they had their chance to qualify like everyone else. What about playing through a qualification campaign, earning the right to grace that stage, and then being cruelly robbed of it by a freak injury? That’s a tragedy of it’s own.

As for Arsenal? Well, it’s an enormous blow. Whenever I allowed myself to envisage Arsenal winning this season’s Premier League, our success was always contingent on the availability of our best players.

I’ve tried to work out whose injury would hit the team harder. I’ve come up with a list of three: Wojciech Szczesny, Per Mertesacker, and Olivier Giroud. As important as players like Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil might be, we have others capable of doing a similar job.

Walcott offers something special: goals.

Replacing Walcott in his starting position on the right wing is not that difficult. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has returned to training and will soon be ready to bring his direct running and skill to the side. In the meantime, young Serge Gnabry looks more than capable of bridging the gap.

However, neither Chamberlain or Gnabry is likely to offer a goal threat to match that of Walcott. Despite missing two months with another injury, Theo’s goal tally is bettered only by Giroud and Ramsey, and his recent form suggested he was preparing to build on his total of six thus far. With Giroud’s prolific start to the season now a distant memory, Walcott’s presence in the side became increasingly important.

Theo loves goals. Some accused him of being overly selfish against Spurs, but the truth is there are few players in our squad who share that unbridled desire to see the ball in the back of net. Even our resident centre-forward, Olivier Giroud, can be unduly generous at times.

Walcott’s determination to be recognised as a striker sees him repeatedly putting himself in a position to score. Look at his brace against West Ham: the first was a tame effort, but he at least had the self-confidence to take the shot on and test the goalkeeper. As for the second goal, how many other players in this Arsenal team would make a lung-bursting sprint to stick their head on a cross? Not too many.

Wenger will doubtless talk about ‘internal solutions’. There is one: Lukas Podolski. The manager has always been loathe to field both Walcott and Podolski on the flanks. However, Walcott’s absence might allow him to rebalance his midfield and include the German international regularly on the left-hand side. Although he lacks Walcott’s blistering pace, he does possess a nose for goal and a fine shot.

However, Wenger must also be considering a move in the transfer market. Prior to this incident, I received word that Arsenal had made tentative enquiries about signing a diminutive dribbling winger. I was dismissive of the news, but wonder if that interest might now intensify.

I’m not sure it will. Arsenal have plenty of wingers. Arsenal don’t necessarily need to replace Walcott, but they do need to replace his goals.

Arsene Wenger must scour the market for someone who is capable of making up that shortfall of 8-10 goals created by Walcott’s absence. They might be a winger or attacking midfielder in the ‘Draxler’ mould, or they might be a supplementary centre-forward.

The truth is that in recent weeks Theo has almost been playing as a second striker, so acquiring a front-man still seems like the priority.

The season might be over for Theo, but it’s not for Arsenal. Arsene Wenger must act fast to ensure that the rupture of Walcott’s ligament does not also precipitate the tearing up of Arsenal’s title dreams.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Spurs: I Sher-Woodn’t want to be a Tottenham fan

Arsenal 2 – 0 Tottenham
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I’ll admit, I was worried about the XI Arsene picked…
Before the game, Arsene said he’d treat this just like an important league game. He was fibbing. Had this been a league game, Szczesny, Mertesacker and Ozil would all have started. Perhaps Olivier Giroud would even have been roused from his sickbed.

Instead, all four were absent from the starting XI, and two from the matchday squad entirely.

There were two areas that particularly troubled me. The first was at centre-back: the pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen has never looked particularly secure. The first half showed that fielding these two talented but impetuous defenders does make us a little vulnerable in-behind – Vermaelen was twice turned when trying to nick the ball early. However, any anxiety was relatively short-lived: a cut knee forced Vermaelen off at half-time, with Mertesacker coming on to replace the Belgian.

My other concern was the goalkeeper. Although Lukasz Fabianski’s recent performances have been relatively solid, I’d be lying if I said I’d entirely let go of my perception of him as something of a calamity waiting to happen – as my annotated team-sheet will show.

My fears were misplaced…

Arsenal were never really tested. Fabianski made one decent save to deny Christian Eriksen, but other than that Arsenal looked very secure. Emmanuel Adebayor, whose good form going in to the game was cause for dark premonitions, spent the match tucked firmly in Laurent Koscielny’s back-pocket. Roberto Soldado, meanwhile, is truly the heir apparent to Helder Postiga in Tottenham’s Hall of Infamy.

To be honest, Tottenham made it very easy for us.

I think Tim Sherwood’s positive impact at Tottenham has been hugely overblown. He’s only won three of his first six games. He drew at home with an out-of-sorts West Brom, and lost an important Capital One Cup tie at home to relegation-threatened West Ham.

I don’t know if it’s because he’s a young English manager, but the praise he’s received seems hugely disproportionate when compared to his actual tangible impact. The BBC have even chosen to conveniently overlook the West Ham game and call this the first defeat of his time at Tottenham:

I’m convinced that a Spurs side managed by AVB would have given us a better game today – in fact, they did just that, back in August.

Sherwood has been lauded for his revolutionary introduction of an old school 4-4-2 formation. However, today was the first occasion on which his system was tested against a quality five-man midfield. It might be good enough to beat mid-table sides like Manchester United, but it’s not going to be good enough to beat the Arsenal.

Another bizarre thing about Sherwood is that while he has overhauled the team, he’s chosen to retain arguably the most catastrophic element of AVB’s team: the kamikaze high line.

It was telling that Wenger opted to pick a three diminutive speedsters up top in Gnabry, Walcott and Cazorla. He had probably watched Liverpool’s tiny trio of Suarez, Coutinho and Sterling demolish Tottenham a matter of weeks before.

While I’m on it, Tim Sherwood is a spectacularly inarticulate man…
I know I’ll be accused of snobbery here, but I don’t care. After the match, Sherwood claimed, “We was not not outnumbered in midfield, we wasn’t”. Seems like he’s stuck in his own double-negative spiral.

Gnabry was outstanding…
Starting Fabianski felt like a gamble. Starting Gnabry felt like a declaration of faith. That faith was repaid with a storming display. For an 18 year-old, it’s his football intelligence that really takes your breath away.

Amid all the chatter about the Januzaj lad at United, you might forget that other club’s are even allowed to have exciting youngsters. Apparently if they don’t have even the slightest chance of playing for England, they’re not as interesting to our national press. Nevertheless, I can’t see many more promising prospects than Gnabry around – and he doesn’t dive. While I’m at it: if he played for a club with a midfield as weak as Moyes’, he’d probably be starting every week too. As it is, he is in competition with the likes of Cazorla and Ozil for a regular place.

Further reading: Serge Gnabry comes of age as Arsenal see of Spurs

Rosicky…
…deserved that goal. He probably deserves a new deal, too. Arsenal will face competition from the MLS and elsewhere for his services in 2014/15, but I’d be delighted to see him stay with the club. You won’t find many 33-year olds who could race away from Danny Rose quite so effectively. He’s like Peter Pan. Or maybe Benjamin Button. Maybe eventually he will regress in to being a weird little baby old person. Who knows? But I want to see it happen. At Arsenal.

Further reading: Super Tom Rosicky Shines Against Spurs

Theo Walcott looked impressive as a centre-forward…
His finishing was a little off, but he showed great movement and a willingness to take on the physical elements of the role. On the admittedly limited evidence of the past two games, he’s a far better bet for the position than Lukas Podolski.

As for the whole stretcher-based controversy, Spurs want to be careful throwing money at Theo – they’ve already chucked away £100m in the summer transfer market.

Arsenal saw out the game in relative comfort…
My overall thought watching this match was that gap between the two teams seems to have widened significantly in the first-half of this season. This was the most one-sided derby victory for some time.

The Fourth Round beckons, and I hope we give the FA Cup some real focus this year. It’d be a massive thing to reach the final or, God forbid, win it. The players seemed to flourish away from the weekly pressure of the Premier League, too – this was our best performance in weeks.

Arsenal have nine days rest now before an awkward-looking trip to Aston Villa, and the resumption of Premier League duties.